MoMA Rooftop Garden by Ken Smith – Crime of the Century?

Rooftop Garden, MOMA Location: New York,NY Architect: Ken Smith Landscape Architects.

If this blog had only launched a couple of years earlier, you’d better believe we’d have ranted about the all-fake “garden” on part of the Museum of Modern Art’s roof by the famous designer Ken Smith, who teaches at the Harvard Design School. I recently learned about the “garden” from my landscape architecture professor.

This was Smith’s second scheme for the roof, after his first was rejected. He told the New York Times writer Anne Raver, “My strategy this time was to do something that would fly under the radar. Something that was subversive, but could blend in.”

Quoting Raver, “In designing a pair of low-maintenance roof gardens for the Museum of Modern Art, Ken Smith found the perfect answer: plastic plants, artificial boulders and crushed recycled glass. This garden needs no water.

“What he came up with is a riff on the art of camouflage…Mr. Smith’s camouflage garden is an ironic comment on the art of landscape architecture itself.”

And who’s it for? Raver wrote, “So museum staff will enjoy it, daily. And so will people in surrounding skyscrapers, particularly the residents of the 52-story Museum of Modern Art Tower built over the original museum.”

It also took two tries for the ASLA to give Smith’s design an award. Here’s what Smith wrote about the design in his second application for an award:

The garden breaks new ground esthetically in terms of design vocabulary, wit and irony, materiality and public visibility. While physically inaccessible, the garden is highly visible as a viewing garden at the urban high-rise scale of Midtown Manhattan…

The history of landscape design is filled with examples of camouflage and simulation. Central Park, for example, is a large-scale garden that artistically simulates visual and spatial aspects of an idealized pre-industrial arcadia and disguises a large territory of the Manhattan grid with a simulated nature. Contemporary landscape design often deals with the fundamental issue of ameliorating or covering up the impacts of the constructed environments.

Practitioners refer to it as “remediation,” “shrubbing it up,” “contextualization,” or simply “naturalizing.” This practice of landscaping as camouflage is a common but critically unrecognized aspect of simulation in the landscape architecture profession. In contemporary urban life camouflage is ironically used to both blend in and stand out.

And one of the ASLA jurors called it

Original–a real garden in a form that hasn’t been seen before. It’s amazingly contextual–the artificial elements really work in this setting. We love the painted grates. Graphic design at a city scale.

To no one’s surprise, others have disagreed. A reviewer for Treehugger wrote

No irrigation. No live plants. No maintenance. No heavy planters. 185 plastic rocks. 560 artificial boxwoods. 300 pounds of clear crushed glass. 4 tons of recycled rubber mulch. This is the “garden” on the rooftop of the new Modern Museum of Art in New York. Ken Smith is a fantastic landscape architect. But everybody makes mistakes.

See, the roof below this “garden” is over the museum’s new sixth floor gallery space; they wanted a garden, but they didn’t want any leaks. So they hired Smith to commit the crime of the century.


  1. Perhaps the museum will right this wrong, with a redesign that provides habitat for birds– part of a new to be planned wildlife corridor in the City.

  2. Reminds me of the adage ‘stand for something or you’ll fall for anything’. Someone was a smooth talker.
    Though I am unsure if my reaction would have been quite as strong if the word ‘garden’ was omitted.

  3. Looks like he smoked too much weed, got a really bad idea and went with it. A delusion of grandeur. But you can’t win the contest if you don’t enter and it wouldn’t be the first time that a designer’s narrative became a judge’s thoughts. LOL.

  4. We’re all gardeners here, so of course we want to see something that’s called a garden actually BE a garden. But I’m thinking this is really an art installation, and whether you like it or not, Smith met some pretty weird requirements (no water, can’t be accessed by people, only visible from above, perhaps there were roof weight limits too?). If you look at it from that perspective, you can’t really judge it as being a garden. I am very curious how the birds will like it; surely some will roost up there, leaving their droppings and maybe even nesting. It may turn out not to be so low maintenance after all!

  5. The museum’s selection committee must not have heard of Piet Oudolf.
    Mr. Smith’s solution is an abomination.

  6. It’s an art installation, which makes some sense for the Museum of Modern Art. But it isn’t a garden, period; it’s utterly lifeless. ItAnd it’s not “landscape” architecture, either. Just architectural decoration, and not super attractive, at that. Better than a plain rooftop — barely.

    Give me Central Park anytime. ASLA should have declined to honor this the second time around, too, but that’s their business.

  7. It is certainly an art installation not a garden. Why copy a garden? But it is too bad that it can’t be accessible.
    It makes me think of the Gaudi rooftops when we visited Spain. Most were fun, and accessible.

  8. When I taught a grad level landscape design class at Columbia University I always brought up this garden as a point of discussion – looks like a a plastic recreation of Roberto Burle marx real garden to me. I understand they needed to dress up their rooftop but to call it a ‘landscape’ is a misnomer….

  9. This is a lot of Sturm und Drang over the fact that an art museum used the term “garden” for an art installation. Ironic, since many people don’t have a problem when someone “curates” lists, videos, etc. Curate is a very specific museum term that means much more than just assembling a group of something to share or display. We all appropriate language and change it slightly. Garden originally meant an enclosed space, but has morphed to a much broader meaning.

  10. If it were ever true that ‘garden’ meant nothing more than an enclosed space, it was literally millenia ago. The MoMA and Ken Smith aren’t participating in the evolution of the word, they’re abusing it. It’s unsurprising to find gardeners, whose connection to plants is part of what draws them to this activity and to this site, put off by an entirely plant-less, lifeless space not only calling itself a “garden” but seeking, and ultimately getting, validation for the misappropriation of the term.

    Happily, no one here has used the pretentious and trendy ‘curate’ when all they mean is ‘select’ or ‘choose’ — but that usage, regrettable as it is, has a much better claim to being an example of a word in evolution than calling a decorated rooftop a garden.

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